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Fatima by Noise/Experimental Artist Ruhail Qaisar: A Sonic Landscape at the Edge of Darkness

All is not well in the world. Amidst natural and man-made disasters, the most tragic is one of the apathy that we’ve slipped into. The superficiality of most art today reflects our fixation with escaping the very real crisis unfolding around us. From sound to sculpture, it is hard to pinpoint the question a work of art asks of us, if any. 

If history is a proof of anything, it is that crisis always strikes, and from the crisis emerge the most poignant reflections. Ladakh has been a hotbed for crisis for a long time now. Its border with China has been contested leading to military insurgency; it is a cold desert which makes survival a challenge even for the most seasoned inhabitants and it has seen an onslaught of tourists who know and understand nothing about the region. The latest in a series of crises is the declaration of Ladakh as a Union Territory which has further made the area vulnerable to over tourism and over development, thus erasing whatever culture allows one to thrive in the area.

Ladakh is not the first or only place in the world or even the country to suffer trauma from politics and humanity. But it is one that has often been the subject of revolutionary artwork. Of these, the latest is a noise and experimental album by Ruhail Qaisar, ‘Fatima’.  The debut album release by the self-taught artist and producer screams with the trauma and decay of life in his hometown of Leh. Qaisar absorbs this external condition of perpetual conflict between nation states into his internal life and resulting compositions, crossing sound art, noise music and experimental filmmaking. The artist has also put together a 48 page booklet with with photographic documentation, lyrics & additional context that can be bought on Bandcamp.

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Fatima is not an easy album to listen to. Hauntological drones, power electronics and convulsive post-industrial dissonance create an unnerving sense of fear, anger, and alienation. A broken transistor with a knob tuned to the abyss is bombarded with the cries and bitter laughter of a city’s inhabitants tyrannized, not only by military occupation but the soft-power subjugation of the tourism industry. Qaisar suggests the ideal setup for listening to the album as “a dark room, on a good Soundsystem, hot on the volume. Sound and image don’t have anything to do with each other.” 

Following 2016’s Ltalam EP—released under Qaisar’s now-defunct Sister moniker—Fatima serves to transmit memories carried through the events, local mythos and personal recollections of growing up between the remote agrarian villages of Ladakh and the urban center of its joint capital—Leh. On being asked the role of sound and music in society & in  his life, he says “My initial sonic experiences when I was young were local cremation ceremonies and processional flagellations, the mythocathatric aspects of ritualistic sound within a community, and the trance states they evoke, simultaneously to perturb stagnation with electric howls from frigid and inhabitable ruins. A perpetuated flash flood in a cold desert, collecting the debris of civilization.”

The album was mixed between Ladakh, and a DIY home studio in New Delhi, where the artist amalgamates his collected found sounds and field recordings into unrecognizable hybrids. He describes his set up for the album as “Found instruments built with contact microphones and natural field recordings from Ladakh. I developed various methods of practice and composition, and at times these sounds would present themselves, also certain motifs are native to the essence of Ladakh,  thankfully they are not manipulated beyond recognition, rather much emphasized.”

The opening track ‘Fatima’s Poplar’ is a dark introduction to the album. We hear pulses of bass playing in the background of a reading of an excerpt from Nick Land’s Circuitries and the sound of metal clanging against each other. Halfway through, a distorted noise takes over the sound spectrum and mirrors the desolate image that permeates the sonic and philosophical landscapes of the work. The mysterious pulses of bass evolve into a smoother background for ‘Sachu Melung’ which also features an alarm like sound that fades in and out, reminding one of an ambulance rushing through traffic. The track ends with very distorted noise that sounds like static interspersed with the sound of a heartbeat and a strangely familiar rhythm before an abrupt end. 

The next two tracks, Abandoned Hotels of Zangsti & Seventh Dream (Ramazan’s Wedding) are not as desolate sounding at first, till you hear the samples on each. Abandoned Hotels, which is a meditation on the cyclical tourism in the region, in particular, features a sample which could be cheerful except the context which it is used in sends shivers down one’s spine. The track reminds one of tourism’s much exploitative promise of development at the expense of the locals. Similarly, the hustle and bustle of Seventh Dream might remind you of the superficial cheeriness that blankets a celebration, before the veil is lifted and the truth is revealed.

‘Namgang’ rings with an urgency expressed aptly by the hissing whispers set against a background of a distorted guitar and a chugging bass. Build ups with throbbing basses, heartbeat-like-beats interwoven with distorted soundscapes and discordant pads are a tying thread across most of the tracks in the album. On the ‘Painter Man’ it devolves into a cacophony of gongs being struck together.

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‘Partition (From Astore to Leh) is a tribute to Qaisar’s maternal great-grandmother’s migration from the village of Astore in Gilgit Baltistan to Leh in 1947 on her own,  by foot, with four young children, a perilous journey crossing harsh rivers and spiraling high-altitude mountain passes. The track might evoke nostalgia – not for a pleasant memory but for the appreciation of the ancestral struggle that puts into perspective your existence in this time and place.

As difficult as it is to listen to Fatima, one can’t help but wonder the seed that can give birth to such poignant work. While we know the subject of this album, vis-a-vis his hometown and the struggles it faces, on being asked about the intention he began the work with and how it evolved over time, he very aptly says “To try and put a finger exactly where the intention breeds would be pointless, in this accelerated age of attention economy to extend movement towards the other spectrum. I wanted to suspend these pieces into a deep lull yet also make them reach unhomely and inhabitable spaces. It (the intention) has not been compromised in any way, the compositions retain their rawness, if anything the changes rendered them more powerful and bleaker than they could be.”

Discordant pads and atmospherics on the dark ambient of “Daily Hunger” is disrupted by a crashing, pounding reverb, while contributor Elvin Brandhi shrieks towards its horrifying conclusion in the squelching, scratching sound of something soft being chewed. An anti-lingual conjuring of metaphysical totems in music, Fatima is a seething chronicle of experience through the dynamics of riots, violence, colonization, unemployment, PTSD, and self-abuse. 

The closing track ‘The Fanged Poet’ draws a haunting close to a sombre and poignant 51 minutes that one spent with the work. A trumpet and the sound of children devolve into the sound of agony, with a distorted guitar moving the story forward. As all else fades away, the shrieking trumpet fades to black and leaves the listener with a sense of doom familiar to the wake left behind in Qaisar’s hometown.

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